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Taiwanese President Faces Close Race for Re-election - 2004-03-04

Taiwan President Chen Shui-bian is running for re-election in the island's presidential election, scheduled for March 20. He has angered China with remarks about declaring independence. Mr. Chen's rival for the presidency has accused the president of repeatedly provoking Beijing. VOA's Robert Daguillard examines the issues in the 2004 Taiwanese election.

When Taiwan's voters go to the polls on March 20th, they will be asked to decide whether to return incumbent President Chen Shui-bian to office, or to hand power back to the party that held it for half-a-century before Mr. Chen's election four years ago -- the Nationalist Party, or KMT.

Public opinion polls indicate it will be a close race. With President Chen a few percentage points behind his opponent Lien Chan, it is not clear that he will win a second term. David Brown teaches on Taiwan at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies in Washington. He says the opposition KMT feels it has campaign ammunition it can use against the incumbent. “There's been an awful lot of mudslinging, which has obscured the issues,” he says. “But there are some.

On Chen Shui-bian's side, the issues are the promotion of democracy by having Taiwan's first-ever referendum and political reform, and the attack on what he has long called ‘black gold,’ the corruption in Taiwan politics. On the [opposition] side, the main election issue in Chen Shui-bian's record or, as they see it, his non-record of accomplishment: The fact that the economy has been in the doldrums [stalled] and that he has created problems in their relations both with the United States and with China.”

Professor Brown and many other specialists agree that Taiwan's relations with mainland China will dominate the election -- as they have the island's political life since the two sides split and became rival republics in 1949, at the end of the Chinese civil war.

What makes China-Taiwan relations complex is that while Beijing considers Taiwan a rebel province, the island republic has never declared itself independent from the mainland. That is in part because of a long-held belief in Taiwan that the republic's founders would one day return to the mainland, overthrow Beijing's communist regime and re-unify the country.

Jeoyuh Lin is a Taiwanese-born law student who lives in the United States. “The way we were brought up was pretty much under the KMT way of thinking,” he says. “We kind of see ourselves as part of China. For one, if you go to any parades or you see any news broadcasts on television, they always show images of Taiwan in conjunction with the greater China.”

But he says that while the KMT opposes any attempt to declare independence, President Chen's Democratic Progressive Party is led by politicians who have never experienced a united China a situation that, Jeoyuh Lin says, has influenced their worldview. “A lot of political changes, as you know, have occurred. The President is a native Taiwanese and he has implemented a new political thought where Taiwan is more independent. People are more assertive in seeing themselves as distinctly Taiwanese. They see themselves as Taiwanese rather than as Chinese who might one day join up with China once more.”

Most political experts agree that President Chen is a Taiwanese nationalist who has used nationalism to serve his own political ends.

Last November, Taiwan's parliament passed a law that would allow the people to vote in referenda, for the first time. Shortly afterwards, President Chen announced that the republic's first-ever ever referendum would take place at the same time as the presidential election and that it would deal with the Taiwan's future relationship with mainland.

Although he did not immediately specify what questions it would ask, the referendum was widely interpreted as opening the door for future calls for greater independence from China -- possibly provoking a military confrontation with China.

President Chen's intentions were not well received in the United States. Washington has full diplomatic relations with the mainland Chinese government and not with Taiwan. But it has always given military aid to Taiwan and has long called on both Beijing and Taipei to solve their differences peacefully.

In December, President Bush made his reservations about the planned Taiwanese referendum known, at a White House meeting with visiting Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao. He said neither country should try to change the nature of the relationship that has separated them since 1949. “We oppose any unilateral decision by either China or Taiwan to change the status quo,” said President Bush. “And the comments and actions made by the leader of Taiwan indicate that he may be willing to make decisions unilaterally to change the status quo, which we oppose.”

Speaking through an interpreter, after the meeting with President Bush, Prime Minister Wen accused the Taiwanese government of using the referendum to serve its separatist policies. “The Chinese government respects the desire of people in Taiwan for democracy. But we must point out that the attempts of Taiwan authorities, headed by Chen Shui-bian are only using democracy as an excuse and the attempt to resort to a defensive referendum to split Taiwan away from China. Such separatist activities are what the Chinese side can absolutely not accept.”

Analyst David Brown says President Chen had to soften the language of the referendum in the face of criticism from China and the United States. “There was a lot of different wording being discussed after he announced his intention to have a referendum,” he said. “And some of that language was rather hostile towards [the mainland]: "Do you think [the mainland] is threatening Taiwan with its missiles?" He softened up that question a little bit and made it one more of: "Do you think that in response to [the mainland's] deployment of these missiles, Taiwan should invest more in its own missile defense.”

John Tkcacik is a China scholar at the Washington-based Heritage Foundation. The former U.S. diplomat says the Bush Administration has placed undue importance on ties with China, even though Beijing, in his opinion, has not helped the United States combat terrorism and may have assisted Iran in developing a nuclear weapons program. “President Chen certainly took President Bush's concerns to heart, even before he came up with the wording of a referendum. He did not bend to China's pressures. The persons who bended to China's pressures, of course, were those in the U.S. Administration.”

Mr. Takcik argues that the United States allowed China to bully Taiwan into softening the language of the referendum in order to preserve ties between Washington and Beijing.

Law student Jeoyuh Lin thinks that, by and large, most Taiwanese are happy with the status quo in relations with China a situation that allows Taiwan to enjoy its own democratic institutions and capitalist economy while not declaring formal independence from the mainland.

While not saying who he would like to see win the election, Jeoyuh Lin suggests he is not satisfied with President Chen's leadership over the past four years. “As far the policies that Chen has pursued, he is not addressing the real needs of Taiwan. For one, Taiwan is under an economic recession and people are more concerned [with] these economic problems rather than the political situation. And I do think that Chen is rousing up the issue so he can get re-elected.”

Professor David Brown of Johns Hopkins University says President Chen's base consists of about one third of Taiwan's voters, who genuinely want independence from China. He notes that another third are resolutely opposed to it. And, he says, this month's election will hinge on swing voters, who hope that the island republic and the mainland will solve their differences peacefully, over time.